Known for its verdant hills, tropical weather and laid-back lifestyle, Kerala is well worth a visit, not least for its colourful theatrical shows and a taste of the Munnar tea plantations.
Like us, you may well fly into Cochin International Airport and have some time to explore this port city, particularly Fort Kochi. We stayed at the fantastic and highly rated Pod Cochin homestay. If you walk around the local area, you will no doubt be charmed by the friendly locals, the traditional fishing techniques and the colourful local spices and powders.
One attraction that was recommended to us by the homestay owners was to take in a show at the nearby Kerala Kathakali Centre.
A classical Indian dance form, Kathakali is an all-male Hindu performance art that dates back to the 17th century. We were advised to arrive early in order to see the guys applying their make-up, which was fascinating as we witnessed their theatrical transformation.
These three men played all of the characters – man, woman and demon – with elaborate make-up, masks and costumes, as they portrayed an episode from epic Hindu legend.
The next section, before the performance started, was an introduction to the hand and eye movements, music, footwork and facial gestures that would act as their language for the next hour, expressing a range of emotions. We were impressed by the eye movements in particular, which looked dizzying in their exaggerated enthusiasm. A host informed us that these actors train for around seven years in order to perform these roles.
The performance itself was entrancing and bewildering, as a green-faced prince was seduced by a screeching demon disguised as a beautiful woman, who was later outed and punished. Definitely a unique theatre experience.
The homestay owners kindly organised a car for us to take us to our next destinations. The excellent driver recommended another traditional show from Kerala, an ancient martial arts performance at Mudra Cultural Centre in Thekkady, near the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Kalaripayattu is a martial art from Kerala, which at more than two thousand years old is considered to be one of the most ancient fighting systems. It comprises lightning-speed gymnastics with the use of wooden and sharp metallic weapons.
Held at a ‘kalari’ school or hall, the training area includes a ‘puttara’ seven-tiered platform in the south-western corner, which represents a guardian deity who is worshipped before each training session. The audience looks down on a roofed red clay pit, 3.5 feet below ground level to protect the practitioners from the elements as they perform. And it really is a spectacular performance. The audience was constantly amazed as these young men demonstrated choreographed battles and even jumped through hoops of fire.
A four-hour drive from Thekkady (most attractions in Kerala seem to be four hours from each other), lay the Munnar hills, famous for their rolling tea plantations.
On the way to the Munnar tea plantations we stopped at the Munnar Dam where we saw a wild elephant roaming around in the distance. Luckily it was far away, as this powerful creature could easily kill a human if it charged at them.
The Munnar tea plantations are well worth a visit as they offer a stunning landscape. Munnar is around 1,600 metres above sea level, in the Western Ghats mountain range. Unfortunately when we visited, the hilltop station was closed due to overcrowding, as we were visiting during an Indian holiday. Apparently from the hilltop station you can hike around the Munnar tea plantations, but we were lucky enough to have a car to drive us around this spectacular sight.
Even when at one point the clouds rolled in, the Munnar tea plantations were utterly beautiful and calming. We learned how the different types are tea are picked from the different parts of the plant and how the trees are strategically planted to help protect and irrigate the land. We also saw the people at work plucking the tea leaves by hand and collecting them in their baskets.
India is the second largest producer and exporter of tea in the world after China, producing famous teas including Assam and Darjeeling. The country is also the world’s largest consumer of tea, using nearly 30% of the global output. It’s a nation obsessed! The Munnar tea plantations also offer an important source of employment for people from poorer parts of the nation.
After all this sightseeing, it was time to buy some freshly picked Indian tea, so we stopped at a shop to select some tea leaves and powders. The perfect way to remember our taste of the Munnar tea plantations over a brew at home.